Psychology is always a complex area, more so when it comes to dealing with children. The age-long debate of Nature vs Nurture has always been a much-talked-about topic. This articles delves deeper into the various groups of beliefs.

Nature vs Nurture : Historical Background

Long before the birth of psychology, there was a philosophical debate between the nativists and the empiricists.

Nativists (such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778) believed that we are born with most of the qualities we will display as an adult. The environment may modify some of our traits but basically, our characters are innate.

The empiricists believed that a human infant was born tabula rasa which means blank slate’. All skills and knowledge acquired by the child would be brought about by learning. John Locke (1634-1704) said without nurture we are nothing.’

A modern form of empiricism which relates to psychology is behaviourism. The father of behaviourism, John B. Watson believed so strongly in nurture that he claimed he could turn anybody into anything using behavioural techniques.

He said:

give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specialised world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – a doctor, lawyer, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors’ (Watson, 1925).

On the other hand, an extreme form of nativism was advanced by William McDougall (1908) who tried to explain social behaviour in terms of instincts.

He said:

The human mind has certain innate or inherited tendencies which are the essential springs or motive powers of all thought and action, whether individual or collective, and are the bases from which the character and will of individuals and of nations are gradually developed'( McDougall, 1908).

Nature/Nurture and Psychology

The nature/nurture debate has become one of the central debates in psychology, particularly in developmental psychology. The kinds of questions asked by child psychologists are: What elements of a child’s physical and mental being can be explained in terms of nature (i.e. the genes they have inherited from their parents) and what elements are due to nurture (their social and physical environment)c The nature/nurture debate used to be described as nature versus nurture but, nowadays, most psychologists take a more interactionist view and realise that all characteristics are a product of the interaction between nature and nurture. Psychologist, D. O. Hebb once said that trying to separate out the influences of nature and nurture is like trying to determine which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width. Neither can be said to contribute more, they are both important. During this course, you will meet the nature/nurture debate often. The relative contribution of genes and environment will be discussed in terms of
PerceptionIntelligenceCognitive developmentPersonality
Because babies are socially and cognitively immature, a baby’s intelligence and personality cannot be measured in the same way that an adult’s can. If babies’ and adults’ intelligence cannot be measured in the same way, how can people know that a baby’s future intelligence is inheritedc Nativists believe that a child is born with innate abilities, which cannot be perceived directly until the child is older. Characteristics, such as intelligence and personality, are already pre-determined at birth by the neonate’s genetic inheritance.

Empiricists believe that children do not inherit their intelligence, or personality. Instead, children’s intelligence is a result of what they have learned, from their interaction with the environment. Similarly, their personality is shaped by their experiences with the external environment. In this psychological context, ‘nurture’ means what children experience, directly and indirectly in their environment. For psychologists, environment’ simply means the surroundings, but not only in the physical sense of the word. A child at school experiences the ‘school environment’, and that can be sub-divided into the classroom environment or the playground environment. At home, a child is in their home environment. What children experience in their home and school environments influences their social and cognitive development. Children’s experiences include how people behave towards them, and other children’s and adults’ behaviour which they observe.

A psychologist who is a ‘nurturist’ believes that it is a child’s environment, and what happens within that environment, which influences behaviour, not some innate qualities a child has had since birth. This means that there is the possibility of intervention. Poor environments can be changed or enriched to help a child develop its full potential.

The idea that intelligence and personality are the product of nature and/or nurture originated in the late nineteenth century. Francis Galton, who was related to Charles Darwin, had the idea that intelligence is inherited (Gillham, 2001). Intelligent men were more likely to have intelligent male relatives. To help investigate this, Galton came up with the idea that identical and non-identical twins (who did not grow up together) should be studied, to see if their intelligence is inherited, or is the result of their environment.

Galton was more in favour of the nativist argument than the empiricist argument. Other intellectual thinkers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries thought differently. Maria Montessori for example, who opened new types of nursery schools, believed that if a child is not developing ‘properly’, it is because the child’s home and/or school environment is wrong. The child might be being abused or neglected, or the child’s environment is dull and uninteresting, and the child cannot ‘learn’ anything from it.

This article has been put together by the distance learning organisation Start Learning who are experts in home study.

If you want to find out more about Child Psychology or many other distance learning courses please browse their website:

A useful way to work towards a career in Child Psychology is to sign up for a distance learning course on the subject. By studying in your own free time, you can study in your own home and gain knowledge quickly and at your own pace.

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